Happiness. We all want it and yet it seems as to elude so many of us - no matter how hard we try to pursue it. According to a recent poll by the Office for National Statistics just 32% of people in the UK reported high levels of happiness when asked.
And yet many of us cringe slightly if the topic of conversation turns to happiness. We picture cheesy motivational videos or that uneasy feeling you have if you find yourself browsing in the self-help section of a bookstore. But much of the cynicism towards happiness may be semantic - nobody would say that we shouldn't try to reduce misery, would they? Yet it's as if admitting that you might have a 'happiness problem' is something to be ashamed of.
But you shouldn't feel this way. Happiness isn't a trivial subject. As Oscar Wilde once said "We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality."
According to the research of acclaimed psychologist Ed Diener and colleagues, he's on to something. Happier people live longer, recover quicker from illness, perform better in the workplace and experience more fulfilling relationships. In fact almost every way we cut the pie, happier people are better off - and causation doesn't always run in the direction you may assume.
What's being discovered is that just as our fitness level will remain constant without effort, our happiness levels will remain constant without effort. But with intentional effort our happiness 'muscles' can be trained.
Develop the Happiness Muscles
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studied the brains of average people versus Buddhist monks who had over 10,000 hours of meditative training. The surprising findings were that when meditating the level of activity in regions of the brain associated with happiness dwarfed anything the scientists had ever seen. The brain had been trained and rewired to be happier in a process known as neuroplasticity, with regions getting stronger just as muscles do with more use.
Meditative approaches such as mindfulness based cognitive therapy, which is now an NHS accredited mental health treatment, work by helping us to focus on being present moment - rather than being stuck thinking about the past or projecting about the future. This helps us to achieve peak performance or 'flow' - the moments where we are completely engaged in what we are doing.
Increasingly mindfulness is being used in some of the most successful companies to help foster creativity and focus, with a prominent example being Google's 'Search Inside Yourself' programme developed by engineer and self-proclaimed "jolly good fellow" Chade-Meng Tan.
But deep breathing isn't the complete answer to happiness. A study focusing on very happy people found that they did experience negative emotions in the same way way as the average person does, but that very happy people were able to overcome these feelings faster. They had developed emotional resilience that got them through. According to Martin Seligman, the superstar psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, seeing setbacks as "temporary, local and changeable" is the key to overcoming them.
Friend or Foe?
To para-phrase Nick Hornby, no man (or woman) is an island. We've long known that our connections and relationships play a large role in how happy we are. But what's only become known recently is that emotions are contagious and can and do spread, just like a virus epidemic, through our social networks. So we should heed the advice of Tim Ferriss, author of the upcoming The 4-Hour Chef, when he says that "you are the average of the five people you associate with most. If someone isn't making you stronger, they're making you weaker." Similarly, if someone isn't making you happier, they are making you miserable.
Find Your Map
Because happiness is so hard to measure, when we think about our lives we spent more time focusing on the things that we can easily measure - such as our bank balance - and less time on the things that we can't. And as Dan Gilbert reveals in his acclaimed TED talk, many of the things that we think will make us happy really do not at all. For a year Gretchen Rubin, bestselling author of The Happiness Project tried out many of the commonly held beliefs about happiness, finding that many were misguided.
So test things out, see what works and adapt what doesn't. But whatever you do, don't be fooled that happiness is trivial or that you can't do anything about it. How to be happy is a question that can be answered, you just need to pursue it with the right map.
Follow Tom Cornwall on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@thomascornwall